Women's Suffrage: The Struggle for the Thirty-Sixth State

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The Opposition Grows Grimmer
The Supreme Court Speaks

The Struggle for the Thirty-Sixth State

The National Suffrage Association now called upon the two chairmen of the Republican and Democratic National Committees to secure the one ratification needed. The Republican leaders were determined that their record should not be blackened at the eleventh hour, and Democratic leaders were equally sincere in the decision that defeat of final ratification should not be laid at their door. So both national chairmen again issued statements and vied with each other in efforts to influence lagging States. The Democrats considered four States which had not yet taken action, Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, from which they hoped to secure one ratification; while the Republican party looked to Connecticut, Vermont and Delaware and felt sure of one ratification out of the three chances. In May, the Democratic National Committee and the National Democratic Convention in San Francisco passed strong resolutions. The one adopted by the convention called specifically upon Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida to ratify the amendment. In Chicago, at the National Republican Convention, June 8, correspondingly strong resolutions were passed.

In July the Woman Citizen, the official organ of the National American woman Suffrage Association, carried an open letter to Senator Harding, the Republican nominee for President of the United States, in which the fact was cited that he now, as the executive agent and mouthpiece of the Republicans, became responsible if the party failed to complete ratification in time for the women to take part in the 1920 elections. At the same time an urgent appeal was made to the Democratic nominee for President, James M. Cox. President Wilson was asked for co-operation in securing a special session in Tennessee and for assistance in North Carolina and Florida.

One more State! Which would it be? Governors Marcus A. Holcomb of Connecticut and Percival W. Clement of Vermont, both anti-suffragists and anti-prohibitionists, were known to have entered into some kind of compact not to call their Legislatures. They had been visited by deputations from the State auxiliaries of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in these States early in the summer of 1919, and petitions for special sessions had been refused. In all these months of ratification activity neither Governor had receded from the position then taken. The pressure brought to bear from within and without the States was unprecedented. Committees of men and women brought unquestioned evidence of popular demand, but interviews, petitions, resolutions of political conventions and appeals of party leaders went unheeded. In both States the Legislatures had been polled and would have ratified by large majorities, if called. In Connecticut the petition, signed by a majority of both Houses asking for the special session, was waved aside by the Governor, and by the chairman of the Republican party in the State, John Henry Roraback. These men had not only opposed the Presidential Suffrage Bill proposed in the last Connecticut Legislature, but in the days when suffragists had begged for opportunity to get the question before the voters of the State by a referendum, they had exerted all their efforts to prevent action.

In Vermont, the women secured pledges from a majority of the legislators to agree to pay their own expenses and give their time at a special session. Governor Clement still refused to call the session. In both States the Governors were in absolute control of the situation.

In Connecticut, Governor Holcomb masked his opposition to the special session with the contention that the suffrage problem did not present the circumstances of “special emergency“ under which he was authorized by the State Constitution to convene the General Assembly in special session.

In Vermont, Governor Clement disguised his opposition with the argument that “If the electors of this State are not to be allowed to vote upon the Federal Suffrage Amendment it seems only fair that it should be acted upon by a General Assembly selected with knowledge that it is to be acted upon by them.“

Over and over again these men, urged by their party, the Republican, and arraigned before the bar of public opinion by the press, were given to understand that full responsibility rested upon them for their policy of obstruction. Why was it so difficult to get the thirty-sixth State? Why? Why? The political machine that could make a President certainly could easily whip a reactionary or determined Governor into line. The National Suffrage Association and all its State auxiliaries bent every energy to secure the sessions. When the Governor of Connecticut announced that he was ready to receive proof of the existence of an emergency, the Association offered its co-operation for a demonstration of nation-wide strength to furnish the proof as a protest against the blocking of woman suffrage for the whole country. It organized, at a cost of $5,000, an “Emergency Corps“ of forty-eight women, one from each State, doctors, lawyers, scientists, business and professional women, professors and public officials, a group of women which in size, prominence and ability had never been equaled in the United States. They met in New York May 2, and received their instructions from the president of the Association. At Hartford they held a meeting. Then, separating into four groups of twelve each, they spoke in the chief cities of the State. Dividing again into groups of four each, they visited many of the smaller towns. With Connecticut women, they interviewed most members of the Legislature. After a tour of thirty-six towns with forty-one meetings at which resolutions were passed unanimously calling upon the Governor to convene a special session, they came, on May 7, at eleven-thirty in the morning, to the Capitol. In short speeches they answered the Governor's objections and emphasized the national significance of their request. The Governor replied that he would reserve his decision until he had carefully considered their arguments. Four days later he announced that “while the arguments proved a strong desire for a special session they did not prove the existence of a 'special emergency' and he must decline.“

As time passed on the situation became more and more exasperating. It seemed that these Governors could not realize how the nation with its millions of people regarded their attitude and the position into which this “emergency“ had thrust the political parties of the country, so a campaign was organized by the National Suffrage Association to get the voice of the people and the voice of the party into written form. In the result hundreds of letters went to both Governors from prominent Republicans all over the country. The appeal was made from the standpoint of national emergency and all reference to the presidential campaign was eliminated.

In order that the country in general might have the facts regarding the delay in calling the session, the president of the Connecticut auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association issued a manifesto which read in part:

“Who is responsible for the delay which may keep 10,000,000 women from the vote for President and about 20,000,000 from the vote for members of Congress, State officials, etc. Both great political parties, but the Republican in greater degree. . . . It lies in the power of this party to speak the word that will fully enfranchise the women of this country and where there is power there is responsibility. . . . You have withheld that one State which would make just the difference between our voting or not voting. . . . An emancipator is not the man who takes the prisoner all the way to the door and lets him look out but the man who actually unlocks the door and lets him go free. . . . At the time of the State Republican Convention the Hartford Courant obligingly explained that the suffrage resolution it passed was a pretense and really meant nothing-a statement, it is only fair to say, repudiated by many honorable Republicans. Now it is Chairman Roraback who, with happy unconsciousness that he is exhibiting his party in a 'yellow light,' tells the public that the national Republican platform should not be taken seriously. . . . 'The leaders of the party,' he says, 'put the suffrage plank in to please women in the voting States, but they meant nothing by it!' Are the men who are to lead a great party as double-faced and untrustworthy as Mr. Rora-back paints them? Were they laughing in their sleeves as they wrote the solemn pledges in the rest of the national platform? We wonder if Connecticut Republicans will let Mr. Roraback smirch the party honor unchallenged. The course for the State Suffrage Association is clear. We must play our part in this sector of the national suffrage struggle and we must let our opponents see that they cannot keep American citizens out of their fundamental rights with impunity.“

In the meantime Republican women in the State organized a movement which pledged its members not to give money or work for the Republican party as long as women remained unenfranchised; three Republican women went to Columbus, Ohio, and impressed upon the Republican Executive Committee there assembled that the sincerity of the party in regard to woman suffrage was being questioned. Another group waited upon Senator Harding and asked him to request the Governor of Connecticut to call a special session. Senator Harding declined, on the ground that it would be improper for him to make any suggestion to a fellow Republican on a great moral question.

In August, when it was found that the Republican party was taking credit for most of the ratifications already secured but not bringing effective pressure on the Republican Governors of Connecticut and Vermont, thirty women requested an audience with Mr. Will Hays, chairman of the National Republican Committee, to ask him what the party was doing to secure ratification in Connecticut. He received them in the National Republican Headquarters, New York City. The chairman of the Connecticut auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association spoke for the deputation. She said in part:

“What the women want is to vote in November. What the parties apparently want is a good record as a talking point in the coming campaign. What to the women is the supremely important thing is that 36th State. What to the parties seems to be most important is to exact their full due of gratitude from women who have not yet received the gift that was promised. . . . In our own State where the Republican party is responsible the women are actually being called upon to aid its campaign while it is repudiating the policy and promises of the National Party in regard to ratification. . . . From the time when suffrage became an issue it has had the opposition of the leaders of the Republican Party in this State. Since the Amendment passed Congress they have resisted every expression of public opinion, every plea for ratification on grounds of justice and fair play. For a year the suffragists have tried sincerely and patiently to work in and with the Republican Party to overcome this opposition and have been co-operating with a Republican Men's Ratification Committee formed for this purpose, but we are apparently no nearer a special session than we were a year ago. During all this time we have had no evidence that the National Republican Committee was really working in the State. We found it very difficult to reach you personally and our appeals for specific help were ignored. Mr. Roraback and Major John Buckley, secretary to the Governor, have stated that they have never been asked by you to call a session. They evidently feel and wish the public to understand that the National Republican Committee has given them a free hand to pursue their obstructionist course. And to confirm this comes President-elect Harding's refusal to attempt to persuade Governor Holcomb. In the meantime, we women are being told that the Republican party cannot be held responsible, because the Governor stands alone in his opposition! We submit that so long as the official leaders of the party in the State are in entire harmony with him in opposing us, and the National Party keeps hands off, they are accomplices in his opposition and must be held responsible accordingly. And we further submit that if a national party is to come before the voters on the basis of its policies and promises, then it must be held responsible for making those promises good through its State branches. . . . If the Connecticut Republican leaders can play a free hand without interference from the National Party, then that Party faces the alternative of either admitting powerlessness and disintegration or of being an accomplice in the State's attitude of repudiation.“

Governor Holcomb still refused to call the session.

In the meantime Vermont women had not been idle. There the same vigorous efforts were put forth. The women conducted a remarkable campaign, providing new and ingenious methods of reaching Governor Clement, the last of which was made possible by the help of the National American Woman Suffrage Association at a cost of $1,000. It was the organization of such a deputation as had never before been attempted by men of the State for any cause. Twelve of the fourteen counties were represented by four hundred women who went to the State Capitol, overcoming the obstacles of long distances, almost impassable roads and poor train service. Many came from towns remote from railroads, one woman walking five miles to the station. Others plowed through deep snow and over muddy and rocky roads before day-light. Reaching the Capitol they marched, a silent army of loyal soldiers, through a cold drenching rain and took their places before the Governor's chair. One by one, in a sentence or two, they presented Vermont's case. His response was that he “did not care to make a decision at once.“ In addition to this demonstration, a campaign of letters and telegrams had been arranged to precede and follow the visit of the delegation and 1,600 communications from all parts of the State went to the Governor's desk.

On June 29 Governor Clement went to Washington and both press and people believed that at last he would give way. Senator Harding, candidate of the Republican party for President of the United States, and the Governor both acknowledged that the calling of a special session in Vermont had been discussed. Senator Harding said he told the Governor he would be very glad to see this done but made plain his desire not to interfere with the Governor's prerogative. On July 12 an official proclamation was issued by the Governor in which he stated that the federal constitution in its present form threatened the foundation of free popular Government. He said: “The Sixteenth Amendment, providing for a Federal Income Tax, was lobbied through Congress and State Legislatures by Federal agents, and the Eighteenth Amendment, for Federal Prohibition, was forced through by paid agents of irresponsible organizations with unlimited funds.“ Concerning what he called the proposal to “force through the Nineteenth Amendment for Woman Suffrage in the same manner,“ he said: “I will never be a party to any proceeding which proposes to change the organic law of the State without the consent of the people.“ “The Constitution,“ he said, “threatened free popular Government alike as it stood and as it was interpreted by the Supreme Court. This decision leaves the people at the mercy of any group of men who may lobby a proposal for a change in the Federal Constitution through Congress and then through the Legislatures of the States.“

The President of the National Suffrage Association issued an open letter to the Governor in the course of which she said:

“A careful perusal of your proclamation refusing to call the Legislature of Vermont into special session impresses the most casual reader with the conviction that you have doubt-less told the truth, but not the whole truth. In order that this generation of your fellowmen and posterity may not misunderstand your position, the National American Woman Suffrage Association urges you to supplement your proclamation with replies to the following questions: Do you acknowledge that the Federal Constitution is the supreme law of this land and supersedes all State Constitutions wherever the two are in conflict? Do you challenge this fact that has stood unchallenged for 131 years? Do you know that on January 10, 1791, Vermont ratified that Constitution, although she had one of her own, and by so doing accepted the precedence of the Federal Constitution over it and by that act was admitted into the Union as a member of the United States of America? If you do know these facts of common knowledge, why did you throw over your refusal to call a special session the camouflage of a dissertation about the alleged conflict between the Vermont and Federal Constitutions which has nothing whatever to do with the calling of a special session of your Legislature? . . . Do you not know that when a Legislature acts upon a Federal Constitutional Amendment, it draws its authority from the Federal and not the State Constitution, and that the Governor has no responsible part in the transaction, except as custodian of the amendment when it comes from the Federal Secretary of State and returns to him with the Certificate of Ratification? Then why profess such a burden of personal responsibility in the matter? You profess to fear 'an invasion of State's Rights and take upon yourself the responsibility of preserving the foundations of free popular Government.' Then why did you veto the Presidential Suffrage Bill passed by the Legislature of Vermont in 1919, which was strictly a State action and conferred the vote upon the women of Vermont alone?

Your National Party Convention in 1920 called for completion of ratification in time for women to vote for the next President. Your Party's National Committee in the interim of conventions took action three times, once asking the Congress to submit the Suffrage Amendment, once favoring early ratification and once calling upon Republican Governors to call special sessions in order that ratification might proceed. Your State Party Conventions, your Party's State Committee, your State Legislature, hundreds of Vermont women, the chairman of the National Republican Committee and the chairman of your State Republican Committee, the candidate for President of your Party, all have asked you to call a special session. This is a very distinguished and notable group to be dismissed with the implication that your people are at their mercy. . . You owe it to the Republican Party and to the world to explain your assumption of an authority that belongs to your party leaders. By what right do you make this assumption? Governor Clement tell it all.“

But Governor Clement did not call the session in Vermont.

While the Governors of Connecticut and Vermont persisted in their refusals to call the special sessions, attention was turned to Delaware where there was hope. The history of Delaware on constitutional amendments had been unusual and strikingly irregular. Delaware was the first State to ratify the Constitution. It refused to ratify the three amendments proposed in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War and did not reconsider its action until 1901 when its Legislature accepted them. Delaware ratified the Income Tax Amendment but the Seventeenth Amendment, providing for direct election of United States Senators, did not meet with the approval of the Legislature, although the State of Delaware, because of the attempt of rival candidates to influence the Senatorship, had kept one of its seats vacant one entire Senatorial term. Delaware was the ninth State to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment.

This record did not tend to a favorable forecast of the fate of the Nineteenth Amendment; but there were other things which did. Delaware was now a Republican State. In the Senate there were twelve Republicans and five Democrats; in the House twenty-three Republicans and twelve Democrats. If the Republicans would adhere to their expressed party policy the Amendment could be ratified the first day of the session-and the Republican leaders did not minimize the ratification by the Legislature of Delaware as a party asset. If Delaware failed to ratify, leaders argued their party would be held responsible for the defeat of the Amendment and reprisals at the polls might follow in the coming campaign from the women of the thirty-one States in which they now had presidential suffrage, exclusive of Vermont and inclusive of Kentucky, which in 1920 had been added to the list of States whose Legislatures had given presidential suffrage to women. But Delaware, governed by provincial interests, failed to see the party importance of favorable action on the Amendment. She was in the midst of a factional fight. The Republican party in the State was divided into two groups led by rival members of a single family. One of these was the National Committeeman. The State Republican Chairman was a follower of the other faction. The National Republican Chairman, perceiving that the only probable chance of a Republican ratification was in Delaware, sent favorable instructions to the Republicans of the State through the National Committeeman instead of the State Republican Chairman, which at once turned one faction against the Amendment because the other was charged with its responsibility. It should also be said that had the message reached the State chairman the other faction would probably have turned against it.

Governor Townsend had delayed calling a special session because he feared action against the school code. A large sum had been offered to the State by Pierre Dupont for a much needed extension of Delaware's public school facilities, contingent upon a like sum being raised by the State. The gift had been accepted by the Legislature and the necessary taxes had been assessed. The Governor was fighting hard to raise the State from its thirty-second place in educational ranks, but when it became apparent that Delaware was needed to complete ratification he laid aside his fears for the code and issued a proclamation calling the session for March 22.

Since the anti-Saulsbury campaign a campaign for ratification had been waged continuously in the State. The State auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association had secured resolutions from all kinds of State organizations favoring suffrage and immediate ratification, and had interviewed the legislators and found a majority to be favorable. The State Democratic Committee endorsed ratification on January 22 and the Republican State Committee at a later date. Indications were so favorable that the women were unprepared for the weeks of intrigue that followed immediately upon the convening of the Legislature.

The people of Sussex, the most southern county, were particularly hostile to the school code and to suffrage. It was these county representatives, led by Daniel Layton, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee, former Governor Simeon S. P. Pennewell, U. S. Senator Wolcott and former Senator Saulsbury, who eventually blocked ratification in the House. Daniel Layton had always been known as a suffragist, but because of his personal opposition to the Governor he publicly announced that he would defeat ratification.

In his message to the two Houses in joint session the Governor said, “Woman suffrage has been a subject of public discussion for over half a century. It is not an agitation of the moment, it is a world-wide question of right and wrong. Your supreme duty is to think and act for the good of your State and the nation. The responsibility is yours.“ Hundreds of telegrams from outside the State poured into Delaware daily. They came from the President of the United States, from Secretaries Daniels, Houston and Meredith and Attorney-General Palmer of his Cabinet, from Republican Governors, State party chairmen and interested party leaders throughout the country.

Governor Townsend was one governor who did everything possible to secure ratification. He was a candidate for the National Republican Convention and antagonism to him took the form of opposing his nomination as delegate. When he was given to understand by the opposition that ratification could be obtained only at the cost of his individual political humiliation, he called a meeting of Republican members of the Legislature and withdrew his candidacy. The opposition, however, after making this proposal, failed to fulfil its part of the agreement and now signed a “round robin“ letter declaring against ratification, which was circulated by the president of the Women's State Anti-Suffrage Association.

John E. McNabb, the Democratic floor leader, boldly ignored the telegrams from President Wilson, members of the Cabinet, Homer Cummings, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and from other party leaders. He said that not twenty-five persons in his district favored ratification and refused to retreat from his position even though two days later a petition from five hundred men and women of his district was handed to him.

The small town of Dover was soon filled to overflowing with parties interested in the defeat of ratification. Among them were all of the notable wet and railroad lobbyists of the State, reinforced by legislative workers and brewers' representatives from other States. Prominent men in high positions worked with them. Henry P. Scott of Wilmington, chairman of the State Republican Ways and Means Committee, widely circulated a statement which read: “If the Legislature will refuse to ratify the proposed Amendment and thus prevent the hysterical rout of the politicians of the country to make shreds and patches of our sacred Constitution, the State of Delaware will receive in the near future the greatest possible glory.“

On March 30 word was received that the Mississippi Senate had ratified the Suffrage Amendment. This was followed by a telegram to the anti-ratificationists of Delaware that the Senate vote was only a flash in the pan and would be reconsidered. The Republican opponents in Delaware telegraphed to the Speaker of the House in Mississippi, “Stand firm against ratification. Delaware Legislature still firm for doctrine of State's Rights and will not ratify. We refuse to be stampeded and whipped into line by any party lash.“

The date for the House vote was fixed for March 31 and defeat there seemed certain. But Assemblyman Hart to whom, as the introducer, belonged the responsibility of bringing up the bill, left the capital for his home, thus making it impossible for action to take place. After a conference with anti members, Representative Lloyd introduced an exact copy of the Hart resolution, so that its opponents might control the measure. Mr. Hart brought up his resolution the next day, April 1, and it was defeated. Days passed. No further action was taken.

The Republican convention met in Dover April 20 and the Delaware auxiliary to the National Suffrage Association made a remarkable demonstration. Hundreds of suffragists arrived on every train and in decorated automobiles. In themselves they constituted the best argument that could be made for ratification. Long petition sheets were exhibited with the names of 20,000 Delaware women asking for ratification. In the convention speech of its permanent chairman, a staunch suffragist, Robert Houston of Georgetown, Sussex County, was a strong appeal for ratification, and it called forth the great outburst of enthusiasm of the day.

Two weeks later, May 5, the resolution to ratify the Amendment was called up in the Senate and a referendum to the voters which was offered as a substitute was defeated by a solid Republican vote of ayes, 4; nays, 13. The resolution to ratify was adopted, ayes, 11; nays, 6; ten Republicans and one Democrat voting for and two Republicans and four Democrats against it. The expectation was that action would be taken in the House on Friday, but on Thursday morning a clear intention to defeat the resolution was revealed and the bill was therefore placed under lock and key in the Senate. For in Delaware bills were known to have been stolen. Senator Gormley (wet) attempted to offer a motion ordering its delivery to the House, but was ruled out of order by the President pro tem. In the House “Bull“ McNabb launched an attack on those who were withholding the resolution and freely used the words “bribery,“ “cajoling,“ “threats,“ interspersed with much profanity. The president of the anti-suffragists called out encouragement to him, and the Republican floor leader, William Lyons, had to ask her to stop in order that he might make his own speech.

The Senate refused to send the resolution to the House and an adjournment of the Legislature was secured until May 17, in the hope of bringing about a change of sentiment. Republican leaders interested in ratification met at the capitol that day and pleaded with members to stand by their party, but to no avail.

On May 28, twenty-three days after the resolution had passed the Senate, it was sent to the Lower House, read twice, and a motion was unanimously carried that the House resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole. A motion was next put to adjourn until twelve-thirty, June 2, and it was carried. On June 2 Representative Lyons offered a motion that a vote be taken on the resolution. It was defeated by ayes, 10; nays, 24. The House thus placed itself on record against the Amendment and ended all further legislative action on it in Delaware.

The causes for defeat in Delaware were personal quarrels between party leaders, augmented by contests over local issues. This rendered the Legislature particularly susceptible to the overwhelming appeals of the well-organized and powerful wet and railroad lobbies. The women antis, as usual, served to hide from the public the real character of the opposition.

The failure of the Legislature of the State of Delaware to ratify filled party leaders with such exasperation that suffragists saw hope that out of it one or the other of the parties would yet find the thirty-sixth State.

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